Excerpt from interview by Rochelle LeGrandsawyer, May 22, 2010
Rochelle LeGrandsawyer In the fall of 1969, you worked with Hal Glicksman to install a disc in the Pomona College Museum of Art, which was up for the 1969–70 school year. When you started making the discs, did you have a particular effect in mind?
Robert Irwin Well, yes, I had very specific things in mind when I made the discs. It was a very simple set of questions, really, because I’m a very simple person. The question was, if something is in the painting that doesn’t actually contribute to the painting in a way that merits it being there, then is it actually a distraction? I started taking out those things that were not really contributing, and in that process things kept becoming more and more sparse. My first breakthrough was realizing that when it’s working, two and two don’t make four. They never make less than five. All the actions and interactions may not actually be there in the concrete sense, but they’re there in the perceptual sense. For me, that was a big deal. I wondered, “Could I paint a painting without a mark, without a line?” Because I realized that in some way or another all marks are part of a sign system. So I made these stretcher bars. They were six-by-six feet and very slightly curved in all directions. It took me a year just to build these stretcher bars. And they worked, in a way. They had a kind of energy to them. But being a painter, I couldn’t just leave it at that. I still had to do something. I made a series of dots on them, bright red dots, very carefully put on, not too ordered, not too disordered. And they went out all the way to the edge and slowly became less and less. Then I put a bright green dot in between every red one, and they canceled each other. What you had was like a field of energy, but slightly circular. In that interval, while they were manifesting themselves for the first time, I saw the frame. And then I looked around at the world and said, “There are no frames in the world, in that sense.” That’s not how we see at all. How can we carry on the entire dialogue about art within something that is, in fact, arbitrary? We see the world with all of our senses; we’re wrapped in an envelope of it, which is a continuum. Well, that blew my mind. How do you deal with that? How do I paint a painting that doesn’t begin and end at the edge? Now the square, of course, is rather demanding, because of the corners. So I took off the corners, which made it round and more neutral, and I stood it off from the wall slightly. The key was for the edge to become lost in its own shadows. The painting didn’t begin and end at the edge. The discs were a beginning of one kind. They broke the magic of the frame. The idea that we can actually conduct everything within that frame is a highly stylized, learned logic. You realize that the frame is very limiting. Look around—that’s not how the world presents itself at all.
RLG You talked about taking the mark away, so that there wasn’t so much of a sign. Were you able to find any way to disengage people from “I see ‘x’ and it means ‘y’”?
RI You know, the thing about something like that is that you don’t do it for that reason. There are two big myths in the art world. One is the idea that the purpose of art is to communicate. And the other is the idea of expression, that I’m expressing myself in some way. In terms of expression, there’s nothing that I can think of that is not an expression. If that’s true, then obviously that can’t be a real reason for the whole enterprise of art. The other is communication, and my questions are: What? How? And to whom? It’s not about me telling them “how,” or “what.” I’ll assume I’ve got something of value to contribute, and the best I can do is put it in the world.